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On Gamepads and controllers...

So, with the Wii U having been out for a few months now, people are getting to grips with the new controller Nintendo has thrown their way. I'm sure most readers are familiar with the Wii U gamepad, so all that needs saying is that it's a regular controller with a tablet-esque screen plonked in the middle. By all accounts, some games use it well, some use it atrociously, and some barely use it at all.

I'm still saving up for a Wii U myself (the joys of being a minimum wage monkey), but my own familiarity (or lack thereof) with Nintendo's latest is not what I want to talk about. For this blog, I want to write about the way gamers in general (but particularly that oft-cited 'hardcore' demographic) seem to approach controllers. It's one of those things where an awful lot is said, and yet I don't seem to see many people thinking about it.

Let me explain: when the Wii came out, a large number of 'hardcore' gamers scoffed at the Wiimote, and its non-traditional input method. It's a mindset which is still as prevalent, if not even moreso today. The Wiimote, and motion controls in general, are laughed off by many as inaccurate, inconvenient waggle-fest disasters. Go on any Wii topic or article, and such points are inevitably brought up. It's something also affecting discussion of the Wii U. For a large number of people, the very idea that the Wii U is a controller which has an integrated touchscreen is seemingly insulting. Gamers are already labelling it a 'gimmick', a piece of motion control trash, and other such charming names. In both the case of the Wii and the Wii U (though this probably applies to any console which has used a non-standard method of input), the common thought seems to be that regular controllers are perfect as they are, and Nintendo are actively ruining a good design by changing the format as they are.

Touched by God...

Now, my question to these people is: when did we start assuming that controllers as they are now are the perfect form of gaming input? A design that can't be bettered?

Think about it. When was the last time you played a real-time strategy game on a console? Even more importantly, when was the last time you played a console real-time strategy game that wasn't atrocious? And lastly, when was the last time you played a good console RTS game that wasn't gimped in some manner or other to make it playable?

What does that have to do with anything? Well, the fact is that controllers, rather than being a perfect form of input, have actually kept entire genres from making inroads onto consoles. The RTS genre has remained pretty much exclusive to PCs simply because regular controllers are so atrocious at the kind of large scale management required. Console MMOs have only ever been a niche genre, compared to the blockbuster PC MMOs like World Of Warcraft and Guild Wars, again because of the fact that controllers are utterly restrictive, whereas Mouse and keyboards are not.

Hell, look at the first-person shooter genre. It's arguably the genre that currently defines console gaming, with the likes of Call Of Duty and Halo. And yet, in terms of gameplay mechanics, FPS games have long been severely handicapped on consoles compared to PCs, simply because of how rubbish controllers are as a method of aiming. It's obvious, really: when playing with a mouse, the movements you make directly translate into aiming movements made on screen. With a controller, you're given a small stick stuck in a circular ring, with which to make all your aiming movements. Which means that all your aiming has to be done via a weird combination of circular thumb movements and short straight-line jabs. In terms of efficiency, it's almost no different to an Etch-A-Sketch.

Tango down! I repeat, Tango down!

The fact that console FPS games are so heavily reliant on behind-the-scenes mechanics such as aim assist shows just how many compromises have to be made by developers in order to make use of controllers as a method of input.

Or just think about anytime a game requires you to put in a profile name or a character name? How much fun is it to use a D-pad to select one letter at a time from an onscreen alphabet? How is it that in the 21st Century, after all the revolutions in game and software design, games are still requiring us to type in letters one at a time, like an arthritic geriatric sat at a typewriter? It's so primitive, it's absurd. I can type in letters more quickly on my phone than I can on a game console. That's something that needs to be addressed. If things stay as they are, soon my toaster and kettle will have better text input than my game consoles.

So why is it that whenever a company decides to try and mix things up regarding controller design, gamers collectively flip their shit? People start acting as if standard controller design is this holy thing which cannot be messed with, even while that same controller design is keeping entire genres from reaching consoles.

The truth of the matter is that, as they are, controllers are well suited, with certain gameplay tweaks, for a select few genres of gameplay. And as it happens, those select few genres happen to be the ones which publishers have been happy to push out non-stop for the past few years. Because the current console gen has been defined by action games, third-person shooters and FPS games (albeit, with the gameplay tweaks mentioned above), many gamers have fallen into the assumption that as standard controllers work well for those genres, they work well for everything, as that's all there seemingly is.

In my opinion, however, controller design has still got a long way to go. For the most part, controllers are restrictive, inaccurate, and downright confusing. Which is why, for all its faults, I still remain a fan of the Wii. Sure, not many developers other than Nintendo ever managed to use the Wiimote well, but when the Big N got motion controls right, it frankly embarrassed regular controls. My go to example is the Metroid Prime Trilogy. Here we had a set of three console FPS games which finally, without compromise or effort, controlled and aimed as smoothly as any PC shooter. You aim with the Wiimote, the crosshair follows exactly. No Etch-A-Sketch thumb movements, no trying to translate half a centimetre's thumb twitching into a headshot or a kneecap.This was it. This was the big step that console shooters had been waiting for for years. This was the evolution which should have allowed console games to have all the accuracy and precision of their PC brethren... and we shot it down. We said that it was inferior, and was nothing more than a gimmick.

Similarly, the Wii U gamepad promises all sorts of potential to any developer with a creative spark. Already we've seen sparks of originality, such as Zombi U's multiplayer mode. For those unfamiliar, let me explain: one player uses a Wiimote to control a human in FPS mode, shooting zombies and capturing flags. The other player has the Gamepad. Their objective is also to capture flags. But, rather deliciously, rather than also play in shooter mode, they get a top-down view of the entire map on their Gamepad screen. Not only that, they're in control of the zombie hordes. They can direct the zombies, call in zombie reinforcements, level up their zombies into new horrible beasties, and generally try and position their shambling subordinates to try and capture flags for themselves.

You know what this is? It's an attempt to translate RTS gameplay directly onto a console. This is something that simply could not exist without the new form of input the touchscreen offers. Quite honestly, you could not do this with a regular controller. This is something which we, as gamers, should be applauding. These new controller inputs are offering us gameplay potential that we've never had before. If touchscreen controllers take off, we could very well see full-blown RTS games start coming out for consoles. Good RTS games, not the embarrassing shite we've had to endure so far. Blizzard have already said they're interested in seeing what the Gamepad could do with something like Starcraft II.

I know this blog could be interpreted as one giant "LEAVE NINTENDO ALONE!" but that's not my intention. My intention here is to challenge the assumption that comes up whenever discussion about new controllers comes up, a discussion that Nintendo always seems to find itself in the heart of. We need controllers to keep evolving in design if we want console gaming to keep expanding. Right now, there is still a veritable Santa's Sack of limitations and restrictions with current controller design, and we should be encouraging companies to try and overcome those limitations. Nintendo seemingly has the potential to with the Gamepad. Jesus, even the Kinect at least has the potential to do awesome things, if the hacks for it shown on Youtube are anything to go by. So let's stop assuming that anytime a company shows a new type of controller, they're spitting on the 'holy input design' set down by others.

So yeah... the next time you see someone complain about how 'such and such' a gimmicky controller sucks compared to the Dualshock or the 360 Controller, kindly ask when the last time they played Starcraft on a console was. And if, by some chance, they reply with the N64, kindly ask them to start acting their age.
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About TitusGroanone of us since 8:55 AM on 11.03.2012